Deep Divisions Cloud Obama's Legacy

Friday, 27 June 2014 11:22 By Paul Krugman, Krugman & Co. | Op-Ed
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2014 627 obam fw "President Barack Obama speaking at news conference in Warsaw last month. His domestic approval rating is hovering at about 40 percent. (Photo: Stephen Crowley / The New York Times).

This seems to be the season for centrist Obama-bashing. The president is ineffectual, we're told; he's a drag on his party, Democrats are complaining in the media (although none on the record), and so on.

By any objective standard, this is very strange. President Obama's signature initiative, health reform, made a stunning comeback from a rocky start and will almost surely be irreversible by the time he leaves office. He has taken the most important step on environmental policy since the Clean Air Act. Financial reform is less sweeping and well short of what should have happened, but it's still significant. If the point of being president is to do things with lasting effect, Mr. Obama has delivered. So why the bashing?

Part of the answer, I think, is that these are the wrong achievements. He was supposed to be serious in the approved way: slashing entitlements to deal with the fiscal crisis. The fact that there wasn't actually a fiscal crisis, and that anyone who really cares about the long run should worry a lot more about carbon emissions than about the Medicare age, doesn't change the bias; strong presidents are supposed to direct that strength at the elite's pet obsessions, not at other stuff.

Another part of the answer is that Mr. Obama does indeed have a weak approval rating. But as Jonathan Chait at New York magazine recently pointed out, the president had a weak rating going into the 2012 campaign too; what mattered was that while voters weren't enthralled with him, elections are zero-sum, and they really disliked the Republican agenda.

Actually, I suspect that we won't see a president with sky-high ratings for a long time, no matter how successful he or she is. America is bitterly polarized, and Republicans in particular will despise any Democrat no matter how much peace and prosperity he or she brings. But a Democrat who has the approval of 40 percent of voters and can attract another 12 or 13 percent who dislike her but dislike Republicans even more can win big, and that's the likely shape of the future.

Long-time readers know that I was highly critical of Mr. Obama back when many were swooning. And I wish that he and his circle had done more on a number of fronts in 2009-2010. But right now he's doing what presidents are supposed to do: changing the country significantly for the better.

We Will Be Welcomed as Liberators

I've often noted that to a first approximation, nobody ever admits having been wrong about anything. My usual prime example is all the people who issued dire warnings five years ago that runaway inflation was imminent, and are issuing identical warnings to this day.

But all of that is nothing as compared with the way the same people who assured us that the invasion of Iraq would be a splendid little war — remember "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran"? — are now insisting that we should go all-in on behalf of a corrupt, incompetent regime that is basically Iran's ally, not ours.

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Paul Krugman joined The New York Times in 1999 as a columnist on the Op-Ed page and continues as a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University. He was awarded the Nobel in economic science in 2008. Mr Krugman is the author or editor of 20 books and more than 200 papers in professional journals and edited volumes, including "The Return of Depression Economics" (2008) and "The Conscience of a Liberal" (2007).
Copyright 2014 The New York Times.

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